Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we’ve witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.

For the past 15 years, James Whitner has independently operated The Whitaker Grp, a retail network made up of 18 locations across the U.S. (Social Status, APB, Prosper, and A Ma Maniére). He’s purposely opened most of his stores in black communities and used his platform to not only sell to consumers, but educate and give back to them—Hand.Wash.Cold, APBYOU, and beSOCIAL are his community platforms that foster empowering and helping his customers. 

In response to the murder of George Floyd, The Whitaker Grp will black out its Instagram channels for a week and provide resources on how everyone can “become empathetic, understanding, and educated about Black-American life.” He’s encouraging his followers to share this information with a sneaker giveaway—those who share enter for a chance to win a batch of sneakers that include the Nike Air Max 270 React ENG Travis Scott Cactus Trails, the Nike Air Max 90 OFF-WHITE Desert Ore, the Nike Air Force 1 Low A Ma Maniere Hand Wash Cold Friends & Family, and more.

But before that gets started, he wanted to share his thoughts on what’s happening in the U.S., how that’s impacting the streetwear and sneaker industry, and what needs to happen next. He expands on many of these points as a guest on the Complex Sneaker's podcast.

A cloud of anger has covered the U.S. over the recent death of George Floyd. For once, most of white America is upset about an injustice that most black Americans know to be an integral part of the Black Experience. Black Americans have watched for years as police officers have killed one black person after another and, in most cases, walk free out of courtrooms across the country after a jury of their peers find no wrong doing in the matter once “the dust settles.”

Protestors have filled the streets of most U.S. cities to unify and show their collective anger and dissatisfaction with racial injustice and inequality. Most of the protests were organized and effective, but some ended with riots and looting. Looting is unacceptable at any time, but I honestly look at the damaged and stolen property as victims of circumstance. Ironically enough, many of the people who committed these acts are also victims of circumstance. But the difference is systemic racism and inequality cannot be insured against in the same way that property and personal items can. As a business owner and active participant in the fashion, streetwear, and sneaker culture, I understand the passion that we pour into our businesses. Many of my brick and mortar locations were completely looted and damaged. With that in mind, it’s still impossible for me to compare it to the lack of direction and education that these kids are up against. All of America’s institutions have failed these kids and this uproar is proof of it, and more of a reason for us to fight for change.

Most people are trying to understand what they should do next and how. My goal here is to help guide us all in that direction, but we must first set a few things straight. First and foremost, it’s my experience that most white Americans fail to understand or acknowledge the value of their white privilege, simply because it is “something they never asked for.” But accepting and acknowledging it is key for us to move forward as a unified nation. This is also a critical step needed for you to truly empathize and understand the plight of black Americans and the other minorities in the U.S.

Social media posts and words of support feel good and fill a moral void. Silence in this moment makes you, as both an individual or corporate entity, look insensitive and disconnected from the real plights and struggles in America. We do see responses and posts against racism from white Americans and corporations, and while they are heartfelt and appreciated, it is not nearly enough. What is your concrete plan of action? If you were mindful enough to send your thoughts through social media where is the next step? Where is the personal plan or a corporate strategy? Without that follow through, can we assume you are leveraging this moment to separate yourself from the silent majority? Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friend.” What I would like to add to that is: What about their actions and/or their continued inaction?

We can all acknowledge that there are entire sectors of American business that are supported by black Americans. Where are the plans of action from the people and companies that leverage black dollars, black influencers, black athletes, and the black experience to weave the culture into the ethos of their brand to prop up their bottom line?

What is your concrete plan of action? If you were mindful enough to send your thoughts through social media where is the next step? Where is the personal plan or a corporate strategy? - James Whitner

While I understand the value and importance of the white Americans and major corporations committing to make racial justice a priority in the U.S., it’s up to black Americans to hold people and corporations accountable. Black brothers and sisters, it’s important for you to hear this: We create and set the market for most trends—we inform them and push them to scale in all segments of the market, from entertainment and sports to fashion and sneakers. We undeniably own “cool,” yet how do we not own some level of “accountability?” As black Americans, are we ready to stop supporting all businesses that do not have a comprehensive plan for racial justice and equality? Are we ready to stop endorsing, selling, and associating with any company or person that isn’t on board with a larger plan for racial equity? I understand that companies are for profit, but if we hold them accountable to reciprocating our given support with action and financial commitment, it would become a bottom line issue. A unified voice and message on accountability is the best opportunity for black Americans, and those who stand with black Americans and racial justice, to level the playing field. The key to enforcing it is being sharp on the issues that affect black communities.

We have to fix a rigged educational system that sees more dollars and investment into majority white schools than the Title One schools that desperately need the financial support. We need a sharper focus on prison and criminal justice reform to reunite black families. No one is talking about the vicious cycle of single parents having children at a very young age, who in turn repeat the same cycle with future generations: Young fathers and mothers treading through life, trying to figure it out, only to get pulled into becoming a statistic mostly by bad odds, lack of options, resources, no access to mentorship or the sound guidance and social support system that our white counterparts have had for generations. This all ties back to poorly funded (yet, in some cases, well-intentioned) educational systems that don’t have the resources to give black Americans the right tools needed to have a real chance at pushing past the circumstances of systemic and institutionalized racial inequality.

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Another key point must be a focus on commercializing and scaling change. Companies spend billions of dollars endorsing new products and ideas — but what if some of that ideology included more substance and support? Voting is our most important right, but the same demographic of black kids that fail to vote is the same demographic that lines up every Saturday for sneaker launches. They also account for the vast majority of people who follow the most powerful entertainers and companies on Instagram and Twitter. Most of these kids probably have no idea how to unlock their financial future, or understand the importance of the access to credit, financial instruments or even the value of savings. Most black Americans struggle with access to capital and credit simply due to the fact that no one is teaching or emphasizing its importance at an early age. Yet credit is being offered and extended by most consumer goods companies, not even recognizing that even with perfect credit black Americans still do not receive the same access to capital as their white counterparts. There must be more accountability around social and financial responsibility.

On January 16th, 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman made the infamous promise to give the soon-to-be-freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. That was the first of many recorded empty promises made to black Americans. On June 19th of that same year, black Americans were freed from slavery—that day is known and celebrated as Juneteenth. That day is important to me and, as an act of solidarity, we would like to partner with each of you, individuals and corporations alike, to put action behind racial justice and equality. The goal is for every person and company that taps into or leverages black culture and our community to release a comprehensive plan on how they will advocate and act to push for racial equity by June 19, 2020. This is not an ultimatum—it is a call for action and support from everyone that has a stake leveling the playing field. I know that the individuals at the head of most of these companies are passionate about this issue, but the world needs unified action now. Change starts with us acting and fulfilling our promises to the black communities we serve. I’ve watched companies spend millions of dollars executing complex strategies quickly and effectively. If this is as important to them, I trust each person and company will face this challenge head on and lean in to partner with us to create a unified voice to support black men and women in America.

Change starts with us acting and fulfilling our promises to the black communities we serve. -James Whitner

Over the last 15 years, I poured my heart and soul into building a company that I love. I understand that I may be risking everything that I have worked for, but I am driven to hold myself to the same level of accountability that I require from all entities we are associated with. Therefore, if any person and company we support does not have a comprehensive plan of action to drive, push, and support racial injustice by June 19th, 2020, we will initiate a review and re-evaluation of our relationship with those individuals and companies. I plan to hold myself to the same level of accountability that I am asking from each of those people or businesses. I understand how strong those words are, but the only way to start is to do just that: Take sharp and decisive action for what I stand for.

Throughout its history, America’s political, business, and social institutions have made countless promises they haven’t kept. The system cannot reform itself, change starts with us all taking action. I heard Cornel West say something that struck my soul: “America is a failed social experience— it cannot deliver protections, civil liberties or security to its black citizens.” While I agree with him, I believe we can and will fix this—by delivering on a demand of accountability. This is the fight of our generation, I challenge you to answer the call. I most definitely will.

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